[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
“Don’t ‘should’ on yourself.” How many times have you heard someone say this when you mention that you really should do something? Perhaps you have used some version of these words yourself. The word “should” (along with its counterpart “shouldn’t”) has become a kind of taboo word in Course circles. It seems to be an invitation to guilt, a regression back to the moralistic religion we’re trying to outgrow, an unnecessary limit to our free expression. Surely it’s a word that the Course would have us avoid, right?
It may come as a surprise to find that the author of the Course loves to “should” on us, using the word over three hundred times. Clearly, then, it isn’t something to avoid. In fact, we can’t avoid the concept it expresses—even to say we shouldn’t use it is (oops!) a “should.” The real question, then, isn’t whether we should “should” on ourselves, but how. In this article, I’d like to show how we can unload the painful baggage from this loaded word and use it in a Course-inspired way, a way that brings happiness instead of guilt.
The problem is the ego’s use of “should”: “You should do this—if you don’t, you’re a guilty sinner”
I certainly understand where the “don’t ‘should’ on yourself” idea comes from: who among us hasn’t felt the sting of “should” statements being used to make us feel guilty? We may have had parents or other authority figures who berated us if we didn’t measure up to their standards: “You should’ve done better on that test—why can’t you do anything right?” We may have grown up in religions that made us feel like miserable worms: “You should be ashamed of those unclean thoughts—do your penance!” We may have a long history of using “should” to beat ourselves up: “I should’ve done better on that job interview—why can’t I do anything right?” All of this, of course, comes from the ego’s drive to paint us as guilty sinners, and it’s perfectly natural that we want to free ourselves from this.
Unfortunately, avoiding “should” doesn’t really free us from guilt. Let me illustrate my point with an example. Let’s say I get angry at my wife and yell at her. This is not a sin, of course, but it is a mistake, something I shouldn’t have done—“anger is never justified” (T-30.VI.1:1). In the Course’s view, acknowledging the mistake so it can be corrected is crucial: “What is important is…the recognition of a mistake as a mistake” (M-7.5:8). But if I’ve banished the entire concept of “should” from my mind, I’m incapable of acknowledging the mistake, since calling something a mistake is simply another way of saying, “I shouldn’t have done that.”
Now that I’ve prevented myself from recognizing my action as a mistake, my ego has a great opportunity to rationalize what I did, to put on the face of innocence and protest that it was not a mistake. Now I’ll come up with all sorts of reasons why what I did was perfectly justified. I might use the kinds of excuses everyone uses, like “I was right!” or “She started it!” or “After that rotten thing she did, she had it coming.” As a spiritual person, perhaps I’ll use “spiritual”-sounding rationalizations like “I was expressing my truth in that moment,” or “it’s all perfect,” or “that’s exactly what she needed to hear for her growth,” or “I gave her such a great opportunity to forgive.” Perhaps I’ll even express these rationalizations to her, and discover to my surprise that she doesn’t find them nearly so profound as I do.
Ironically, even though I’ve stripped out those nasty “shoulds,” the end result of this is more guilt. Why? Because it sets up a situation where my ego has free rein to do whatever it pleases, and acting from the ego always produces guilt. The Course says this, and I have found it to be true in my own experience: however much I might try to justify it when I do something mean, I feel terrible inside. Moreover, by not recognizing my mistake, I actually prevent it from being corrected through forgiveness. It’s just flushed down into the dark sewer of denial where all my other unacknowledged mistakes are stinking up the place, just increasing my guilt all the more. Surely there must be a better way of dealing with our guilt than refusing to “should” on ourselves.
The solution is the Holy Spirit’s use of “should”: “You should do this—if you do, you’ll be happy”
If the problem is the use of “should” to make us feel guilty, then the solution is not to eliminate the word or the concept behind it, but to sever it completely from the idea of guilt. This is how the Holy Spirit uses it. Yes, He tells us there are certain things we should do. But the reason we should do them isn’t that we’re guilty sinners if we don’t, but simply that they bring us benefits that will make us happy if we do. It’s a straightforward “if you want A, do B” situation. If I want to satisfy my physical hunger, then I should go to the kitchen and get something to eat. If I want to satisfy my hunger for God, then I should do the things that awaken me to God.
This is the rationale for the numerous “shoulds” in the Course. Here are a few examples that show a clear connection between doing something you should do and receiving benefits that will make you happy. To illustrate that connection, I’ve bolded the word “should” and italicized the benefit that comes from it:
All abilities should therefore be given over to the Holy Spirit, Who understands how to use them properly. He uses them only for healing, because He knows you only as whole. By healing you learn of wholeness, and by learning of wholeness you learn to remember God. (T-7.IV.4:1-3)
Whoever is saner at the time the threat [to the holiness of a holy relationship] is perceived should remember how deep is his indebtedness to the other and how much gratitude is due him, and be glad that he can pay his debt by bringing happiness to both.(T-18.V.7:1)
There is one thought in particular that should be remembered throughout the day. It is a thought of pure joy; a thought of peace, a thought of limitless release, limitless because all things are freed within it….Your defenses will not work, but you are not in danger. You have no need of them. Recognize this, and they will disappear. And only then will you accept your real protection. (M-16.6:1-2, 11-14
One rule should always be observed: No one should be turned away because he cannot pay….Whoever comes has been sent. Perhaps he was sent to give his brother the money he needed. Both will be blessed there-by. Perhaps he was sent to teach the therapist how much he needs forgiveness, and how valueless is money in comparison. Again will both be blessed….In sharing, everyone must gain a blessing without cost. (P-3.III.6:1, 5-9, 11)
One category that deserves special mention is the Workbook’s practice instructions. We are very good at finding reasons not to do the Workbook’s practices as instructed, but the Workbook is very clear that if this particular course is our path, we need to do what it asks us to do. Again, this isn’t because we’re guilty if we don’t, but because we’ll benefit if we do:
The idea for today needs many repetitions for maximum benefit. It should be used at least every half hour, and more if possible….If only once during the day you feel that you were perfectly sincere while you were repeating today’s idea, you can be sure that you have saved yourself many years of effort. (W-pI.27.3:1-2, 4:6)
“Who walks with me?” This question should be asked a thousand times a day, till certainty has ended doubting and established peace. (W-pI.156.8:1-2)
How kind and merciful is the idea we practice! Give it welcome, as you should, for it is your release. It is indeed but you your mind can try to crucify. Yet your redemption, too, will come from you. (W-pI.196.12:3-6)
Those practice periods that you have lost because you did not want to do them, for whatever reason, should be done as soon as you have changed your mind about your goal….[Your other goals] gave you nothing. But your practicing can offer everything to you. And so accept [its] offering and be at peace. (W-pI.rIII.In.4:1, 4-6)
The basic idea is that you should do the Course’s practices as instructed because “you want salvation. You want to be happy. You want peace” (W-pI.20.2:3-5), and doing the practices is how to get those things. Of course, none of us follows the instructions perfectly, but when that happens we are actually given another “should”: we should “be determined…to be willing to forgive ourselves for our lapses in diligence” (W-pI.95.8:3), so we can let go of our mistakes and get right back to practicing. In short, if we just do what the Workbook says we should do, “great indeed will be [our] reward” (W-pI.20.2:8).
To illustrate the Holy Spirit’s use of “should,” I’ll use the same example as before: I get angry at my wife and yell at her. This time, though, I do something crucially different to handle the situation: I decide to “should” on myself the way the Course would have us do. I say to myself, “I shouldn’t have lashed out at her like that. It just brings unhappiness to us both. It was a mistake. But, thank God, a mistake is not a sin—it is simply something to be undone. To undo my mistake, I should use the Course to practice both forgiving her and forgiving myself.”
How refreshing and liberating it is to simply acknowledge a mistake as a mistake! I may feel bad about it initially, but now I’m in a position to really do something about it. I can use Course practices to help correct my mistake and restore peace of mind. I might use this line from the Text to forgive myself: “I do not feel guilty, because the Holy Spirit will undo all the con-sequences of my wrong decision if I will let Him” (T-5.VII.6:10). I might use a practice to forgive my wife through letting my perception of her be healed; after all, the Course tells us, “You should look out from the perception of your own holiness to the holiness of others” (T-1.III.6:7). I might use that holy relationship practice mentioned above, which says I should remember how grateful I really am toward my wife and be glad to pay my debt to her “by bringing happiness to both.” And certainly I’ll also ask for guidance about how to express my healed perception of her behaviorally, perhaps using this beautiful question from The Song of Prayer: “‘What should I do for him, Your holy Son?’” (S-2.III.5:1). This question, the rest of that sentence tells us, “should be the only thing you ever ask when help is needed and forgiveness sought.” In answer to this question, perhaps I will be guided to say a kind word to my wife, or give her a hug, or apologize.
Notice that I have a whole string of “shoulds” here, but instead of wracking me with guilt like the ego’s version, these actually free me from guilt. Why? Because they rein my ego in and stop it cold, thus cutting off guilt at its source. By recognizing my mistake at the very beginning, I set up a situation where I can turn to the Course to find out what I should do to set things right. By being willing to “should” on myself in a way that doesn’t paint me as a guilty sinner but simply acknowledges that I’ve made an innocent mistake, I open my mind to the loving correction of forgiveness.
Let’s learn how to “should” on ourselves as the Holy Spirit directs
In the Text, Jesus says, “I can tell you what to do, but you must collaborate by believing that I know what you should do. Only then will your mind choose to follow me” (T-8.IV.4:9-10). I think bringing the word “should” out of the closet and using it properly is one way we can collaborate with him. After all, if we tell ourselves there are no “shoulds,” how can we possibly believe that he knows what we should do? Only if we recognize that there really are things we should do to find what Jesus promises us will we be willing to ask him what those things are. So yes, let’s let go of all that guilt we’ve piled up through the ego’s use of “should,” but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Let’s learn how to “should” on ourselves as the Holy Spirit directs, and thus choose to follow Jesus’ way out of guilt and into the joy the Course says should be ours.